Restorative approaches to social work practice are gaining traction amongst social work practitioners, researchers, and educators. The underlying values of the social work discipline are strongly aligned with the guiding principles of Restorative Justice. And although restorative approaches were developed specifically to foster transformation within the criminal justice system, they have been fruitfully applied to many other areas of social work practice. Seeing social work practice through a restorative lens might enhance social work practice, particularly with issues of conflict and justice.
What is Restorative Justice?
Restorative justice is an approach to justice proceedings that emerged in the 1970’s, pioneered by prominent American criminologist Howard Zehr. According to Zehr, restorative justice recognizes that punitive forms of discipline are often ineffective, and therefore “aims at helping offenders to recognize the harm they have caused and encouraging them to repair the harm, to the extent it is possible.” Restorative justice focuses on repairing harm done by engaging all individuals affected and other community members in the process. According to the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, restorative justice centers on three big ideas: “(1) repair: crime causes harm and justice requires repairing that harm; (2) encounter: the best way to determine how to do that is to have the parties decide together; and (3) transformation: this can cause fundamental changes in people, relationships and communities.”
While restorative justice processes were developed for use within the criminal justice system as a way to repair the harms experienced by victims and support offenders in taking accountability for their actions, through its development it has been extended to several other arenas as well. As Zehr notes: “Increasingly schools are implementing restorative disciplinary processes, religious bodies are using restorative approaches to deal with wrongdoing – including clergy sexual abuse – and whole societies are considering restorative approaches to address wrongs done on a mass scale.” Across all of these different areas of practice, restorative approaches are founded on the same guiding principles.
Restorative Justice is based in three main principles that indicate the degree to which a particular process is restorative in nature.
- Engagement – involving those impacted or affected by the conflict or crime. This includes the person or persons harmed, the person or persons who have caused the harm, and community members. All parties should have the opportunity to provide their point of view and participate in shaping the resolution of the problem.
- Accountability – ensuring that participants acknowledge and take responsibility for the harm caused and how it impacted others. Beyond taking responsibility, restorative approaches ensure that agreements are made between parties to ensure that harm is repaired.
- Acknowledgement – ensuring that responsibility for causing and repairing the harm are acknowledged, and assurance that agreements to repair harm are fulfilled to the satisfaction of all involved.
Restorative Justice and Social Work Practice
Restorative justice can be incorporated into social work practice in a variety of settings where conflict arises between two or more parties. Conceiving of conflict and crime through a restorative lens allows social work practitioners to consider the harms caused by the occurrence and work with the community toward solutions that repair the harm. Restorative justice aligns with the six social work values defined in the Social Work Code of Ethics:
- Service – restorative approaches offer an important service to community members impacted by conflict and crime
- Social Justice – restorative approaches aim to achieve justice through non-punitive measures
- Dignity and worth of the individual – restorative approaches recognize victims and offenders as human beings who have complex needs that must be addressed, and whose input is valued
- Importance and centrality of relationships – restorative approaches aim to repair harm through building relationships between individuals involved in the harmful situation
- Integrity – restorative approaches maintain the integrity of all parties involved by encouraging accountability and acknowledgement
- Competence – restorative approaches have clearly defined principles and indicators and should be practiced by trained professionals in order to ensure competence
The fields of restorative justice and social work have much in common, and can be brought together to enhance services for clients in situations of conflict and crime. Restorative approaches to social work practice have been implemented in schools, criminal justice and domestic violence proceedings, and within communities through interventions and programs designed with both restorative principles and social work values in mind. For social workers interested in working in restorative ways, training opportunities are available through the Zehr Institute, and many other centers throughout the world.
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